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A curious thing happened on the way to hiring new teachers in the Madison School District this fall.

An outsized number of initial candidates — 621, or nearly half of the total pool of applicants — advanced to the next stage and got formal interviews.

That was hundreds more than in prior years and just one indication the district intended to seriously shake up its hiring process.

The district needed to hire about 300 classroom teachers. The new approach ultimately provided principals with many more candidates to choose from, a goal of the policy, said Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, the district’s executive director of human resources.

The district also sought to boost the likelihood of hiring high-quality teachers and increase the racial and ethnic diversity of those hired.

On the latter point, the first year of the overhaul did not produce more teachers of color. Of the 276 new teachers hired as of Wednesday, 12 are black (4 percent) and 26 are Latino (9 percent). Those are nearly identical percentages as last year’s hiring class, according to district data.

Four of the new teachers this year identify as Asian or Pacific Islanders, and two checked “two or more races.” Twelve declined to disclose a race. Those numbers also are consistent with last year.

Overall, the district’s teaching staff last year was 12 percent minority, while its minority student population was 56 percent.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said she trusts the new approach will lead to the hiring of more teachers of color in coming years.

“I always want better, but it’s not unexpected,” she said of this year’s results. “Our goal was really to develop and try out the new process, to really focus on quality and on better matching candidates to the needs of a school. As we get better at recruitment, we’ll see the diversity numbers change over time.”

The district began actively moving toward a revamped hiring system early last year. Cheatham’s administration initially wanted to hire a Chicago company called TeacherMatch to provide a recruitment and screening program, at a three-year cost of $273,000.

That idea was scrapped over concerns from board members and others that the program was too costly and relied too heavily on automated screening tools. The new system was developed mostly internally.

New approach

In prior years, all candidates were scored based on their initial application materials. Low scorers got cut.

Candidates still got scored this year, but on a newly developed set of core competencies that district officials say better match the skills that matter most for teaching in Madison. One of the new competencies is “data proficiency,” described as the ability to “use data beyond standardized assessments to diagnose student learning needs and differentiate instruction in the classroom.”

In a break from the past, only those candidates with clear deficiencies, such as not having the right professional certification, were dropped right away, said Hargrove-Krieghoff, hired in August of last year.

“We did not look solely at a number and say, ‘You’re in or you’re out,’” she said. “We looked at a variety of information, because we want to move away from this idea of a cut score and more toward looking at the competencies and understanding each candidate’s strengths.”

Hundreds more than usual advanced to a phone interview, and the interview length was expanded from five or 10 minutes to a half-hour or more, she said.

The process took more time — retired district administrators came back to help. But at least in the first year under the new rules, the district wanted to collect as much information as possible on as many candidates as possible. It can now go back and study whether an applicant’s initial score ended up being a good predictor of being hired, Hargrove-Krieghoff said.

The district also revised its interview questions to reduce the potential for unconscious cultural bias, Hargrove-Krieghoff said. This meant replacing opinion-based questions with scenario-based ones that ask, for instance, how applicants would handle certain classroom situations.

“It’s much more about the craft of teaching and about the skills the person will bring to the job, not whether the person looks or sounds like you do,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said.

Rich pool

The result was a larger, richer pool of applicants to consider, with a lot more information available about each candidate, said Sarah Chaja, principal of Gompers Elementary School.

She praised a change this year in the way the district’s central office worked with principals. A human resources analyst collaborated with each principal to identify candidates who best matched the skills a school needed.

“In the past, I would get a list of candidates from the district, and I didn’t always understand why those candidates were given to me,” Chaja said. “Now I have so much more control because I’m able to spell out exactly what I want.”

New computer capabilities allowed principals to share their notes about candidates with other principals, something not possible before. Karen Kepler, principal of Emerson Elementary School, said the insight from her colleagues helped inform her choices.

“I could use their knowledge and their time with a candidate to see if I wanted to consider interviewing the candidate,” she said.

While principals now have more flexibility, one change was non-negotiable. Every in-person interview with a candidate needed to include a “data meeting” where the principal shared the school’s test scores and improvement plan with the applicant. This placed problems like the racial achievement gap front and center.

“It put the ownership right out there so everyone was on board from the get-go,” said Jessica Taylor, principal of Hamilton Middle School.

Cortez Evans, 31, one of the new Madison hires this year, said he was “elated” with the emphasis on data because it gave him insight into what the district considered important and whether he’d be a good fit. As someone with experience helping Hispanic students excel, Evans said he was excited to see goals along those lines at Gompers Elementary School, where he accepted a position teaching fourth grade.

He called Madison’s teacher hiring process “more rigorous, more work from my end, than a typical job search.”

Faster hiring

A final goal this year was to move up the hiring time frame to avoid what are called “late hires” and to make sure good candidates, including applicants of color, were not lost to other districts.

Part of this was achieved by interviewing external and internal candidates simultaneously, a change negotiated between the district and its teachers union, said Heidi Tepp, the district’s executive director of labor relations. John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., the district’s teachers union, declined to comment on the switch.

In the past, internal candidates were interviewed first starting in March, with external candidates following in May. This year, all candidates competed together starting in March.

Hiring did go faster this year by several weeks. For instance, by Aug. 7, 72 percent of new classroom teaching positions had been filled, compared with 63 percent at the same time the prior year.

School Board President James Howard said it’s too early to know whether the new approach will achieve all its goals, but he said he thinks the process is clearer now, with a greater ability to objectively evaluate its worth.

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